Beam Me Up, Scotty!
Dr. Roel Vertegaal, Associate Professor in Human-Computer Interaction and the Director of the futuristic Queen’s Human Media Lab, has been making international headlines for his research team’s new video-conferencing technology.
Media reports have compared TeleHuman, a three-dimensional (3-D) video-conferencing pod, to the holodeck on Star Trek.
“TeleHuman is not a hologram, actually,” says Vertegaal. “It’s a three-dimensional projector that lets people in different locations talk as though they were standing in front of one another.”
Forget about flat-screen Skype: now people will be able to chat simply by standing in front of their respective pods and talking to a life-sized image, which gets “beamed” in real-time when a 3-D projector projects it onto a convex mirror and then reflects onto the pod’s wrap-around acrylic screen.
This pioneering pod is a good reflection of the kind of work the lab strives to do. “People can be apprehensive about the increasing use of technology,” Vertegaal explains. “Our lab aims to make it easy and interactive using creative industrial design.”
The new pod also has exciting new learning and medical applications. For example, researchers invented BodiPod, which anatomy students use to explore a 3-D model of the human body through gestures and speech interactions. Using the cylindrical display, they can wave to peel off layers of tissue, or in X-ray mode, get closer to see deep into muscles, organs, and bone structure. Voice commands such as “show heart” will automatically zoom in to show a 3-D model.
Since May, the Queen’s Human Media Lab has had a funky new home – one created by Vertegaal in collaboration with award-winning New York-based industrial designer Karim Rashid. An unexpected oasis of colour and curvy-form on the top floor of 1969-vintage, ivy-clad Jeffries Hall, the lab was made possible through a grant by Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ministry of Research and Innovation of Ontario.
Vertegaal, an advocate of “serious play,” emphasizes that the lab’s unusual design is meant to spark students’ creative ideas. “Computers will be integrated into architecture in the future, and human interfaces will be seamless. Here, students can experiment with space as a user interface,” he explains.
The inspirational space features, among other things, a pink sofa, a reef-like blue-and-green carpet, curved windows and furniture, cool electronic wallpaper, a museum of Apple computers, a kitchen and shower for students, and embedded technology: a ceiling projector grid; a wall-sized interactive display that users control using in-air gestures; and a translucent wall that disappears when people in adjoining cubicles look at an eye monitor, signaling that they want to talk to one another.
Vertegaal, who is in his element in this creative playground, has had an impressive career. His first degree was in electronic music at Utrecht Conservatory in the Netherlands. “It was everything from Bach sonatas to jazz improv – I loved the multidisciplinary fusion,” he says.
Then in 1989, when he needed a sampler he couldn’t afford, he decided to make his own. “So I became a kick-ass coder, and that led me from music into to my studies with computers.” He then completed an Msc in Computer Science at Bradford University, U.K., and earned a PhD in Human Factors at Twente University in Netherlands.
Vertegaal, one the world’s leading specialists in eye communication between humans, and between humans and technology, received the Premier of Ontario’s Research Excellence award for his work on Attentive User Interfaces. AUIs, such as eye-contact sensors, make devices more interactive and responsive to their users.
These days, however, its organic user interfaces that Vertegaal talks most excitedly about. In future, he says, computers will be embedded in everything, and take any shape or form, and people will need ways to seamlessly interact.
How will it work? “We may connect via the body’s motor system – like with a computer’s mouse, which works because we can keep concentrating while we use it,” he speculates. “Or if we want to tap into new potential, we’ll need to tap into our subconscious. Our pre-attentive brain governs 80 per cent of what we do.”
So when can we expect to see a Star-Trek-style holodeck? “TeleHuman is still rudimentary, and projecting and tracking objects is just the beginning. But holographs will be possible within 50 years, he predicts. “If we could create a computer experience that’s realistic and physical, for example, we could have a virtual cadaver, a hologram that’s alive, for surgeons to work on.”